District 65 Board hears updates on mental health and Special Services


Daily file photo by Patrick Svitek

The Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Education Center, at 1500 McDaniel Ave. On Monday night, the board heard updates on Special Services about support for students with Individualized Educational Plans, disparities in student performance and student and staff mental health.

Aviva Bechky and Nandipa Siluma

Content Warning: This story contains mentions of suicide risk. 

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Board of Education heard updates on student and staff mental health, support for students with Individualized Educational Plans and disparities in reading and math levels at its Monday meeting.

Director of Special Services Anna Marie Candelario said student suicide risk and threat assessments more than doubled in September and October compared to the same months in 2019. 

Board President Anya Tanyavutti asked whether the increase was due to better tracking of students’ mental health or an increase of students in crises. Although tightened procedures may account for some of the increase, Candelario said the pandemic likely contributed to some students’ mental health emergencies.

This increase in student crises also creates emotional exhaustion for some student support staff members, Board Vice President Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan said.

“We talked about that at our last social work meeting, about secondary trauma and what they’re experiencing,” Candelario said in response. “I’m not gona lie, I’ve had quite a few of them break down.”

Candelario then discussed a proposal to support school staff by having a social worker come in monthly. Staff members also told her talking through different work scenarios together was beneficial, she said.

Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Romy DeCristofaro and Candelario presented data regarding students with IEPs. DeCristofaro said the numbers of both special education referrals and students with IEPs are increasing.

She also said 65% of students without IEPs were deemed to be at or above grade level in math and 75% in reading as of fall 2021. In contrast, 22% of students with IEPs were at or above grade level in math and 28% in reading, according to the presentation.

Large disparities also exist in student performance by race, which DeCristofaro said is a continuing problem. The district has consistently seen a racial achievement gap in yearly data, and has discussed steps to address the gap in recent years.

White students were deemed at or above grade level three to four times more frequently than Latine and Black students in reading, and between six and eight times more frequently in math. Multiracial students were more likely to be assessed as in line with target performance than Latine and Black students, but still fell below white students in the district. The charts shown did not include Asian or Indigenous students. 

“It’s important for us to acknowledge that the significant racial disparity that we see in this data is unacceptable,” Lindsay-Ryan said. “It continues to be troubling and we need to continue to make every effort possible to close this gap.”

The district has also transitioned to a new IEP and Medicaid system. It supports IEP development through goal writing, IEP compliance and parent collaboration.

According to Candelario, the new system includes a translation feature and a parent portal that schools can use to email documents to parents. She said the system provides accountability and accuracy reports on a monthly basis. The system also allows room for parent feedback.

“Getting feedback from families is necessary, with boundaries ensuring that we’re providing the right services but also people (are) not dictating our services as well,” Candelario said.

Going forward, Candelario said priorities for the 2021-22 school year include improving equity and inclusion through building family partnerships, avoiding IEP compliance errors and emphasizing data when discussing student placements and needs.

Tanyavutti spoke of the need to improve from problems caused by the district’s past approach to equity.

“In the past (District 65 has) had a scarcity mindset around special education services and it’s created a lot of discord in terms of relationship with family,” she said. “I appreciate us thinking about how we shift out of that scarcity mindset and be more centered towards equity and inclusion.”


Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @avivabechky

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @nandipasiluma 

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